If it’s a Gene Wolfe novel, it goes without saying that things will not be quite as they seem. The Land Across is no exception. In this post, which is not an actual review, I’m going to weigh in on what I think might be happening in the book. Warning; I’m going to discuss aspects of the plot in detail. If you are worried this will spoil the book for you, I recommend you read Bill and Kat’s review, instead.
In The Land Across, a young American man named Grafton journeys to a small Eastern European country not unlike Rumania or Bulgaria. It is called only “the land across the mountains.” The land is extremely difficult for outsiders to visit. Those who take the roads find themselves stymied by washouts or landslides, or turned away at the border even though their papers are all correct. People who try to fly there have flights cancelled, or their planes are not allowed to land. Grafton, a travel writer whose father used to work for the U.S. State Department, finally catches the train from Vienna. After some strange goings-on with the train, he reaches the country, only to be removed from the train by two, or perhaps three, border guards. He is placed under a weird house arrest in a city that is not the capital. In a series of increasingly strange adventures, he hunts for hidden treasure, meets a ghost or two, gets abducted by inept revolutionaries, is imprisoned by the government, and ultimately becomes a member of the government’s secret police and helps defeat a coven of Satanists. He is aided along the way by a mummified hand of a witch, by a ghost or shade, and by the third border guard, who many locals appear not to notice.
In spite of my optimistic subheading up there, I have read the book twice now and I can’t really say with confidence what is going on. I do know that sleep plays an important part in the border passage into the country. I don’t mean that the whole book is a dream or even that the country is a dream-realm, but sleep is used as a transition for Grafton more than once, usually for important transitions. When he is on the train that will ultimately take him to his destination, on Page 3, Grafton says, “Now it seems to me that I must have been asleep a long time before I got into bed.” In light of what happens after, that’s an interesting sentence. Grafton is asleep in the observation car when the border guards accost him. He falls asleep in the haunted house, after trying to build a fire in the fireplace, and awakens to a cheerfully crackling blaze and the shade of the land’s protector, Vlad Dracul.
I think the magic and the ghosts in this story are real — basically, I don’t think the character of Grafton is delusional, dreaming or is going to awaken from a coma shortly after the book ends. Well, wait a minute. There is one area in which Grafton may be delusional, and that is his supposedly irresistible sexual magnetism. Martya, the unsatisfied wife of Grafton’s reluctant “jailor,” begins an affair with him immediately. Nala, an agent of the secret police, has sex with him. A girl he sees writing poetry with a red pen in a café moves in with him (more about her in a bit). Even the mummified witch’s hand lasciviously grabs his thigh every chance it gets. In this one area, I’m willing to concede that Grafton may be deluding himself just a tiny bit.
Grafton’s adventures are weird and compelling, but if you read the book at face value, he comes off as an unconvincing character, or at least an unconvincing American. If we believe that Grafton is a young American writer (he can’t be older than his very early thirties) and that this book takes place in the present or immediate past, then his behavior is incomprehensible.
Grafton is accosted by two — or perhaps three — border guards, shackled and taken off the train. (By the way, he is removed from the train by a series of conveyor belts, one of the most arresting scenes in the book, pun intended). He does not protest when they take his passport, or his iPhone. The iPhone is the most interesting object here. In the eleven pages before these events, Grafton has never mentioned his iPhone. He didn’t take a selfie; he never once checked e-mail or his itinerary. While Grafton worries about his passport throughout the rest of book, he never mentions the phone again. Under the weird rules of his house arrest, Grafton can do whatever he wants as long as he sleeps at the house each night. Grafton has an affair; he goes boating; he eats out; he hunts for hidden treasure. The one thing he does not do is try to find an internet café, to let someone — a father, an editor, a friend — know about his predicament. If he knows that it’s useless, that there is no such thing as the internet here (which seems to be the case) then one sentence would have taken care of that.
When a government informer says that the American Consulate in the capital won’t bother to help Grafton unless he is rich, or someone important, Grafton hastens to say he is neither, which is a bit strange, since his father worked for the State Department. Similarly, when Martya says that America is a weak country, Grafton agrees. Does this seem odd? This doesn’t sound like American behavior at all.
Martya and Grafton go out boating on the lake, and an old man tells Grafton that Vlad Dracul used to have a castle on one of the islands. Grafton visits the island, and, exploring the ruined castle, meets a dark, thoughtful man who communicates with him without speaking. Later, in the haunted house, Grafton has his second encounter with the shade of Dracul, who leads him back to Martya’s house so that he doesn’t violate the rules of house arrest.
Grafton comments that the third border guard reminds him of his father, and at the end of the book, the country’s autocratic and reclusive dictator, The Leader, awards him a large golden medal, while the others only get silver ones. Grafton also gets treasure and, at the very, very end, with little foreshadowing, ends up with a girl he saw in a café, writing poetry with a red pen. She has won an award for poetry and a scholarship to Harvard, and Grafton calls her “my lady.” Having slept his way up, from peasant-stock to government official, it appears that Grafton has hit the jackpot, and won the country’s poet, a representative of language and heritage, a princess in a land that doesn’t have royalty.
Grafton is never seriously interested in getting out of the country, even when he spends nearly a year in prison with the American wizard Rathaus. He is approached by the shade of the country’s historical protector and assisted by the third border guard before he officially becomes a government operative and defeats the Satanists, as if these mystical beings already know that Grafton is in service to the country.
If you turn this story ninety degrees, and assume that Grafton is a member of the secret police from the beginning, even before he enters the country, his behavior begins to make sense.
Why would a young American risk his freedom and even his life for a tiny dictatorship? Perhaps he’s a secret State Department agent. More likely, perhaps he has a family connection to the country… for instance, if the elusive and magical third border guard (who has another identity in the story) were, let’s say, an uncle.
Even this read, which goes a way toward making the story more sensical, doesn’t fix all the problems with the book. Wolfe has always been brilliant and somewhat out-there, but The Land Across does not hit it out of the park. The language is anachronistic in spots, and the depiction of the women as hotsy-totsy dames feels like the late 1940s, not the twenty-teens. When people speak the country’s native language, Wolfe employees a weird English pidgin that still reads as if they are translating into a second language, badly. I still believe that The Land Across was written, or at least conceived, a long time ago, maybe as early as the 1990s, and only rewritten or fully fleshed out recently. It’s a minor work, but still worth the read. Is Grafton a member of the secret police from the beginning, a prince in an unacknowledged monarchy? I think so. Is the book a wild, surreal adventure? Of that I’m sure.